10 Big Ideas

10 big ideas in... Chocolate

With many housebound consumers likely to embrace comfort eating, Food Spark looks at some of the hot topics occurring in the chocolate category

26 March 2020
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image credit: serezniy/Getty Images

When times are tough, UK shoppers turn to chocolate for comfort. Which is one reason why The Grocer and global analytics company Nielsen found that chocolate was the fastest-growing grocery category of 2019, worth over £4bn. With this growth in sales comes fast-paced innovation in chocolate formats, ingredient sourcing and health claims from both high street and high-end brands. 

We investigate 10 big ideas that are hot in the chocolate category right now... 

What’s next after fair trade?

Whether we choose to buy Fair Trade chocolate or not, the certification is firmly established in consumers’ minds as a mark of quality. However, ethical problems still exist in chocolate production, as Tony’s Chocolonely 100% slavery-free chocolate highlighted when it launched in the UK in 2019. They pay 25% above the standard price and have formed direct, long-term relationships with farmers using traceable bean-to-bar technology. 

As big companies like Nestlé and Mondelēz set up self-certification schemes to replace Fair Trade, the industry’s approach to sustainability and ethical production is becoming increasingly fractured. Consumers are understandably confused, so we expect to see more clarity on pack about sourcing, as well as high street and high-end brands making sustainability an active part of their marketing strategy.

Single serve luxury

British consumers are more interested in reduction rather than changing the chocolate they eat. A Mintel report revealed that 68% of UK adults would rather have a small portion of regular chocolate than a larger amount of low-sugar chocolate. This goes some way to explain the boom in single or reduced-serve chocolate bars on the market.

Booja Booja have launched a 2-pack chilled truffle, for example, and other brands have launched new ‘bite-sized’ reformulations like Green and Blacks velvet fruit bag or doisy and dam’s SNAPS. Ultimately consumers recognise that chocolate is a ‘treat’, and so having ‘less but better’ is a way for them to enjoy it without compromising on indulgence.

How to do healthy

Mainstream brands have been struggling with low-sugar launches. Nestlé’s much-anticipated Wowsome range of reduced sugar chocolate was axed, for example, after it didn’t meet consumers’ taste expectations. Mars Wrigley UK launched reduced sugar Mars and Snickers in 2019 and Mondelez ­followed with 30% less sugar Cadbury Dairy Milk; it remains to be seen how these will fare over the next few years.

Health and reduced sugar claims seem to be working better in high end brands: kAAKAO successfully launched an ‘illegal’ chocolate bar (because it’s sweetened with dates, not sugar) to target the premium market; natural sweeteners like coconut blossom nectar feature in Nu+ chocolate bars; and Benjamissimo use organic erythritol in their no-added sugar chocolate which claims to not affect blood sugar and has zero calories.

Brands starting from scratch in this space seem to get more traction than established ones like Mars or Dairy Milk, as they don’t have to retrofit their product and disappoint loyal customers. It will be interesting to see how – and if – the likes of Nestlé can persevere to meet government sugar reduction targets by 2020.

Everyday premium

Premium claims are becoming more everyday as high-street brands woo consumers with sophisticated reformulations. Seventy-percent cocoa has always been the more suave chocolate in the box, and so Cadbury’s have tried to bridge that gap with ‘more grown-up’ Darkmilk with 40% cocoa solids, rather than 20%.

They recently added Crunchy Cocoa Pieces bars and Giant Buttons to the range, and it’s credited with generating £9m in its first 12 months. Galaxy launched Darker Milk in 2019, and in an attempt to join the sophistication party, Nestlé also launched Quality Street Intrigue truffle box – their first completely new chocolate to join the brand in 85 years. We’re seeing premium formats getting a more everyday price tag to make chocolate’s ‘permissible indulgence’ status both more permissible and more indulgent. 

Bar art

Rather than opting for traditional, conformist squares, challenger brands are turning the bar format into a piece of art. Avoiding easy-to-break tablet lines means consumers decide their own portion size (and perhaps eat more in the process). 

Beau Cacao craft chocolatiers have swapped linear tablet lines for geometrics, Spanish brand Utopick use triangles, and Eat Your Hat fair trade chocolate have done away with lines completely. This partly taps into the multisensory, ASMR food trends as consumers seek more sensation in their food experience, but in a crowded market it also enables brands to differentiate through design. 

Sustainable packaging

Chocolate bars are traditionally packaged in foil or metallised plastics which do not hit the mark for current sustainable packaging demands. Some high-end brands like Creightons have opted for paper-based wrappers, but Montezuma claims to be the first to wrap its entire range in fully recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging. 

A chocolate bar rarely lasts more than a few seconds (or is that just us?) and small bar formats are increasingly pushing chocolate into a grab-and-go product rather than something to stop and savour, so sustainable packaging is only going to become more pressing as consumption frequency increases. 

Supercharged chocolate

Good quality chocolate sits at a unique nexus of health and indulgence. Cocoa is high in polyphenol antioxidants that can help reduce risk of heart disease or cancer, but the sugar and fat content in most chocolate often outweighs this health benefit and takes the shine off functional food claims. Instead we’re seeing chocolate with oblique health claims through added ingredients like mushrooms, quinoa, or nootropics

Rebel makes single origin, low-sugar chocolate that’s also 20-25% protein, for example, and KitKat and Yorkie launched a ‘More’ range of high-protein bars in August 2019 to reach a mainstream market. If consumers are going to indulge, they want health benefits to help them justify that treat, so we expect to see more innovative and surprising health ingredients working their way into wrappers. 

Premium processes

More emphasis is being placed on all stages of the chocolate production process and the impact that has on taste. Adams make premium cold-pressed chocolate which protects the bean’s minerals and micro-nutrients and maintain cacao’s complex flavour by not exposing it to heat; NearyNógs, Northern Ireland's first bean-to-bar craft chocolatiers, make stone ground chocolate bars and drinking chocolate to showcase speciality single-origin beans; and Pana distinguish themselves as entirely handmade. 

We’re seeing more language akin to ‘wine speak’ as production stages like conching, fermentation and chocolate liquor are pulled to the fore as unique selling points. Nestlé claimed to be the first to create whole fruit chocolate in July 2019 made entirely from the beans and pulp, but chocolatier Barry Callebaut made the same claim a few months later. When the shelves are crowded with established and challenger chocolate brands, we will see increasing competition and innovation like this in the production process. 

Fun flavours

Salted caramel or chocolate orange have had their day, as we’re now seeing more striking flavour combinations that appeal to the health or ‘curious foodie’ market. Wunderworkshop’s turmeric and CBD bar is aimed squarely at the functional food demographic; as well as being made from wild cacao, it contains anandamide molecule to aid relaxation and a high dose of curcumin.

Chocolatier Christopher Norman experiments with savoury flavours like maple and hickory in their cold-smoked chocolates, and Love Cocoa (from James Cadbury, of the chocolate dynasty) have launched a playful, premium avocado chocolate bar. Flavour innovation treads the line between familiar and fantasy, as new combinations must appeal to consumers’ imagination but also sound appealing. 

Chocolate finish

Brands are attempting to lure customers into purchasing perceived healthier snacks, cereals and other on-the-go treats through the familiarity of chocolate as a finishing touch, with a chocolate coating, dusting, or hidden cocoa nibs. Chocolate and snacks go hand in hand, and when 61% of adults worldwide say they “can’t imagine their life without snacks” – they may well be talking about chocolate too. 

Clio is a chocolate-covered, chilled yoghurt bar, for example, that’s also probiotic and high in protein; the ingredients make the health claim and chocolate seals the deal. Likewise, Livia’s range of free-from, vegan biscuits, snacks and powerballs are all drizzled in chocolate for wider appeal. Chocolate grazing on the go enables consumers to indulge in a ‘light’ way, and pair their cocoa craving with more substantial snacks. 

What’s next?

As the UK faces an increasingly difficult time in both the domestic and international landscape, we expect consumers to increasingly seek solace in chocolate. Sustainability and health will be big issues for NPD, but ultimately taste will always be the primary reason chocolate brands win that golden ticket.

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